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09162012-6 The human body is an amazing machine. It is a balance of countless cells, inter-connected systems, and complicated chemical reactions. But what happens when an organ stops doing its part? What do you do when your heart fails to pump blood efficiently? Or, your kidneys stop removing the waste from your blood? Today, organ transplants provide thousands of patients with hope; however, that was not always the case.

The Lasker Award recognizes “major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of human disease.” It is sometimes considered a precursor to the more famous Nobel Prize; in the past two decades, 29 Lasker award winners have gone on to be awarded a Nobel Prize. The 2012 Lasker Awards were announced on September 12. Among the seven men recognized were Thomas Starzl and Roy Calne for their development of liver transplantation as a viable medical option. Watch a video that introduces Starzl’s and Calne’s work and explains how it transformed medical knowledge and how patients are treated. Read Dr.Starzl’s biography. High school students might be interested in reading essays by Starzl and Calne that describe their research.09162102-2

Dr. Starzl and Dr. Calne’s work is part of the long, slow march toward understanding the human body well enough to successfully transplant organs. Their work joins and builds upon the work of many others. The documentary, The Science of Miracles, chronicles the evolution of the medical knowledge and the procedures necessary to successfully transplant organs. Watch two excerpts from The Science of Miracles: the beginning through 11:03, and 18:00 through 22:09. For a more complete timeline, scroll through organtransplants.org complete timeline of transplantation history.

Understanding what happens to the human body after death is crucial to understanding when organs can be donated. Step inside an interactive body and explore each of the 13 organs and tissues that may be transplanted.

09162012-1 The science behind transplantation is astounding; however, organ transplantation is about people. Two key people are part of every transplant procedure: the donor and the recipient. Their stories are at the heart of each procedure. For the donor or the donor’s family, the decision to donate is often fraught with emotion. For the recipient, the decision may be easier; however, the journey is no less emotional. In addition, countless medical personnel work behind closed doors to ensure the success of the transplant operation. Think of the logistics required for such an operation to be possible: a matching donor and recipient, an available organ where and when you need it. View a slideshow and read the full story of what happens behind the scenes. Explore the human side of the transplant journey. Meet four people on organ donor lists. Read their full stories. Follow a mother as she grapples with what to do. Hear about the key moments in her decision to donate. Read more about the organ donor process. Learn more about the transplant waiting list. Find answers to your questions and clarify myths about donation. Revisit Gary and Rick as they wait for matching organs. Select two Faces of Donation slideshows to watch.

09162012-5 So far, you have explored organ donations with deceased donors. For some organs and tissues, it is possible to have a living donor. Think back to the list of transplant organs and tissues. Which could be donated by a living donor? Read more about living donations.

The wait list for kidneys is one of the longest transplant wait lists. Kidneys usually come in pairs and look like, well, a fist-sized kidney bean. It is possible for a body to function with only one healthy kidney. Because the need for kidney transplants is high, and healthy donors can survive with one kidney, living kidney donor programs are especially popular.  There are two types of living kidney donor programs. In 2010, one of the longest kidney swaps successfully saved ten people. Watch Katie Couric’s coverage of the story.

Kidney swap programs, and organ donation in general, come with ethical questions worth considering. What does the future of organ transplants hold? Will it be possible to custom make body parts? Can we grow body parts in a petri dish? Accompany Neil deGrasse Tyson as he investigates the future of body parts.


High school and middle school students may be interested in a variety of extension exercises to further explore organ transplantation.